Release Date(s)1963 (January 21, 2014)
Studio(s)United Artists/MGM (Criterion - Spine #692)
- Film/Program Grade: A+
- Video Grade: A+
- Audio Grade: A+
- Extras Grade: A+
Stanley Kramer’s madcap comedy epic It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World hit theater screens on November 7, 1963, becoming both financially successful and critically acclaimed. Filled with more high profile comedians than you can shake a fire engine ladder at, it seemed almost destined to be a success, despite the fact that no one had made anything like it before and that it could have easily been a tremendously large scale failure. Thankfully, for all of us, it wasn’t. And to better understand how the film came into being, you have to look at what was going on in the industry at that time.
It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World was not just a mere comedy, by any means. At 163 minutes, it’s one of the only comedy films to ever have such a large scope to it. Most comedies in those days (and today, as well) never went beyond the 90 minute mark, but this film was a special case. The film was made at a time when Hollywood felt compelled to compete with television, which hadn’t been on the scene for very long. People in the business were worried that more and more people would be inclined to stay home and watch their TV sets rather than leave their homes and spend money at their local theater. As an answer to this, they tried a number of different things to bring audiences in, including 3-D projections and new sound formats. Most films at that time were shown at an aspect ratio of 1.19:1 or 1.33:1 (which is a square, full frame format for those who might not know). The idea (and one that eventually stuck) was to use a new widescreen format with an aspect ratio of either 1.85:1 or 2.35:1. Because television presented its programs in a smaller, square format, widescreen made what was being presented seem much bigger and grander. To make things even larger and more of an event for audiences, a new form of presentation, called Cinerama, was implemented for a small number of films. Similar to the IMAX process today, films using this process were shown on an oversized, curved projection screen. The process involved using three different projection cameras to present three separate strips of film on three projection screens simultaneously. The result was a very large screen format, with an aspect ratio of 2.76:1. It was ultimately an ill-fated process because it wasn’t a very cost-effective process and audiences didn’t seem to be all that interested, especially when cheaper ways of seeing widescreen films in their local theaters came along around the same time.
It was also a time when the storytelling aspects of filmmaking were getting much bigger in their scope with much longer running times. The reasoning was that if you made each performance of the film seem more like a large event that audiences coming to see the film would feel like they were getting more for their money. It was an era of “epic” filmmaking, when large scale stories were being produced and, as a consequence, costing movie studios lots and lots of money to produce and release. These epics included films like Ben-Hur, Lawrence of Arabia, The Ten Commandments and How the West Was Won, just to name a few. It was successful for a while with audiences and critics, but the industry changed once movie studios and distributors realized how much money they could make by making shorter films with more repeat performances.
In the midst of all of this, producer and director Stanley Kramer was making some very fine and well-respected films including The Defiant Ones, On the Beach and Judgment at Nuremberg. Kramer had decided to take on the task of making an epic comedy film, something that hadn’t been done before. It was a complete change-up from his previous work, which was often very serious and featured little to no comedy. It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World was the complete opposite of that. The film’s story, which is about a mad trip across the country by a number of strangers trying to find a buried satchel of money, was the basis for the zaniness, and it featured all types of comedy all rolled into one film.
Because of the number of characters, Kramer decided to cast the film with as many comedic faces (and voices) as he possibly could. As a result, the film has a comedic cast like no other. Heading up the cast is the only non-comedic character in the film played by Spencer Tracy, but the lead and supporting casts reads like a who’s who of comedy superstars from the era. Milton Berle, Jonathan Winters, Buddy Hackett, Ethel Merman, Sid Caesar, Mickey Rooney, Phil Silvers, Dick Shawn, Peter Falk, Carl Reiner, Normal Fell, Don Knotts, Stan Freberg, Jerry Lewis, and many, many more, all in either main roles, supporting roles or appearing as simply cameos (Jack Benny being the best example). Besides the comedic all-stars, the film is also notable for its extensive and surprising use of special effects. Matte paintings were used to a large degree, as well as an abundant use of clever sound design. Shot in and around California, the film was also very well photographed by Ernest Laszlo, and featured a score by Ernest Gold. And the film’s opening title sequence being created by the late, great Saul Bass was just the icing on the cake.
It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World was the third highest-grossing film of 1963, was loved by both audiences and critics, and was nominated for several Academy Awards, winning only one for Best Sound Editing. Stanley Kramer went on to direct Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner and the film itself went on to become one of the most beloved comedy films of all time. Its story and its zaniness have been copied in other similar films with a large group of comedic actors, but none are as funny, as memorable or as just flat-out entertaining as It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World.
For years, the film was seen either on TV or on home video in its general release version of with a final runtime of 163 minutes. The original first cut of the film was 210 minutes before being cut down to 192 minutes for its premiere by Kramer. United Artists actually had the film re-edited without Stanley Kramer’s involvement in order to squeeze in more performances before its general release. Most people who’ve seen the film have seen the general release version all of their lives and, at least for my part, consider it to be the finest version of the film. However, as far back as 1991, attempts were made to re-edit the film to its original 210 minute length. This posed a problem because most of the elements that were excised during the editing and re-editing of the film were discarded and/or destroyed. The lost elements that do survive are sourced from lower quality versions of the film, including a Japanese print of the film. Because of the deterioration of the footage over time, some portions of this longer version of the film only survive in fragments, either in video, or audio, or both in some cases. So the full 210 minute version of the film just doesn’t exist, and some of the footage is still missing or just lost to time. But in order to create a historical record of the longest possible version of the film, restoration specialist Robert A. Harris has reconstructed it using every piece of visual or sound element possible, with stills from missing scenes to provide context. This extended version of the film, as seen on this Blu-ray and DVD release, features approximately 80 scene extensions and deleted scenes in all (by my count), including the use of 34 stills for the missing scenes with the audio intact, a set of restoration credits and audio snippets from the police frequencies as heard in the film that were originally played during the film’s intermission.
As I stated previously, I prefer the original, shorter version of the film over this extended version, although I suspect many will disagree with me. None of it has to do with the quality of the footage, and it may just be my personal preference and the fact that it’s the version I’m most familiar with. That being said, the longer version isn’t at all bad. Some extended versions of films can tend to meander, but this one doesn’t. It just seems to take longer to get to the point of each scene wherein the major scene extensions are present. The point is comedy, obviously, but the pace of the original version of the film makes it funnier and much more to the point, in my opinion. Still, it’s not a bad thing to have more of a good thing and still have the original to enjoy if you prefer, and in this case, I do.
As far as the Blu-ray’s A/V quality. Robert A. Harris and Criterion scanned the film at 4K resolution and took the film through a restoration process (mostly for the reconstructed version). It’s spectacular, to say the least. There’s plenty of evenly-distributed grain, giving the film a very natural look. It actually looks its best during outdoor scenes. The film’s color palette is quite solid with a lot of character to it, and skin tones look remarkably good. Blacks are often deep and dark, and the film’s contrast and brightness are perfect. I didn’t notice any major blemishes or film artifacts that stood out, nor any signs of excessive digital tampering (I didn’t expect to anyway). It should also be noted that the images have been de-rectified, meaning that the spherical look to the original photography has been reversed in order to present a flattened image. The film was shot using only one camera with a very wide frame (2.76:1) so that it would fit onto a Cinerama screen without the need for being projected by three different cameras (only a handful films actually did this). When that original image is seen prior to being normalized (or de-rectified), there’s distortion in the image. With a flattened image, that distortion is now gone and the film looks like a normal film presentation, but with a larger aspect ratio.
As for the extended version of the film, the quality is the same as the general release version except for the newly inserted footage. As I stated previously, some of the footage is lost and some is sourced from poor quality prints of the film. The footage has been cleaned up and made to look as best as it can, but it’s obviously inferior. And at the end of each cut of the extended footage, there are audio dropouts because of the various trims that have been incorporated. None of this should be considered a complaint though, and my score doesn’t reflect it at all. It’s a version of the film that doesn’t exist and just getting a basic reconstruction with the only elements available must have been a massive undertaking. So my score reflects the general release version only, which is quite remarkable.
The film’s soundtrack is a single English 5.1 DTS-HD track. It’s a fantastic track that only shows its age in some of its sound effects (not that it really matters that much). That being said, the dialogue is always crystal clear and very precise, the sound design works very well in the surrounding speakers, the film’s score benefits greatly from the surround set-up and LFE output is considerable. It’s a very well-balanced soundtrack, and it should be since the film won an Oscar for it. The extended version, again, features the same soundtrack, but with lower quality during the extended sequences and some dropouts in the audio. Subtitles are available for the general release version only, and in English. The extended version does feature some subtitles, but only when the audio drops out.
Criterion’s massive release of the film contains five discs in all: 2 Blu-rays and 3 DVDs. The extras on Blu-ray Disc 1 (which features the general release version of the film) start off with a set of promotional spots from 1963 (which includes an introduction by Stan Freberg, 6 radio spots, 4 TV spots, the original road show teaser and general release trailers) and 1970 (which includes 3 radio spots and a trailer); a 1963 episode of the TV program Telescope in two parts: A Winter’s Tale and Junket Into Madness, both of which follow the film’s press junket and premiere; a press interview from 1963 with Stanley Kramer and some of the film’s cast members; and lastly, Stanley Kramer’s Reunion With the Great Comedy Artists of Our Time from 1974. Blu-ray Disc 2 (which features the extended version of the film) begins with a text introduction about the extended version of the film; an audio commentary with fans of the film Mark Evanier, Michael Schlesinger and Paul Scrabo; video excerpts about the influence of the film from the 2000 AFI program 100 Years... 100 Laughs; The Last 70mm Film Festival, a 2012 Q&A hosted by Billy Crystal and featuring some of the film’s cast and crew; Sound and Vision, a new documentary on the film’s visual and sound effects, featuring interviews with visual-effects expert Craig Barron and sound designer Ben Burtt; and finally, a restoration demonstration. Also included is a 16-page insert booklet with an essay by film critic Lou Lumenick and new illustrations by legendary cartoonist Jack Davis, as well as a map of the film’s shooting locations by artist Dave Woodman. The other 3 discs in the set are DVDs featuring all of the same content. Safe to say, this is plenty of extra material to sort through and enjoy.
The dual format release of It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World from Criterion is one of the finest packages of the year, and the year just started. The film hasn’t had the most luxurious home video treatment, at least not to this extent, but with this spectacular new release of the film, as well as an alternate extended version and a multitude of extras to dig through, fans old and new should have plenty to keep themselves busy. The film has gone down as one of the funniest and most enduring films of all time, and this Blu-ray release completely solidifies that. Highly recommended!
- Tim Salmons